Abortion in American History

The year after abortion was legalized in New York State, the maternal-mortality rate there dropped by 45 percent -- one reason why legalization can be seen as "a public-health triumph."

 



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OF all the issues roiling the ongoing culture wars, abortion is both the most intimate and the most common. Almost half of American women have terminated at least one pregnancy, and millions more Americans of both sexes have helped them, as partners, parents, health-care workers, counselors, friends. Collectively, it would seem, Americans have quite a bit of knowledge and experience of abortion. Yet the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract: we might be discussing brain transplants. My files are crammed with articles assessing the question of when human life begins, the personhood of the fetus and its putative moral and legal status, and acceptable versus deplorable motives for terminating a pregnancy and the philosophical groundings of each one -- not to mention the interests of the state, the medical profession, assorted religions, the taxpayer, the infertile, the fetal father, and even the fetal grandparent. Farfetched analogies abound: abortion is like the Holocaust, or slavery; denial of abortion is like forcing a person to spend nine months intravenously hooked up to a medically endangered stranger who happens to be a famous violinist. It sometimes seems that the further abortion is removed from the actual lives and circumstances of real girls and women, the more interesting it becomes to talk about. The famous-violinist scenario, the invention of the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, has probably inspired as much commentary as any philosophical metaphor since Plato's cave.


WHEN ABORTION
WAS A CRIME:
Women, Medicine,
and Law in the
United States,
1867-1973

 


Abortion as philosophical puzzle and moral conundrum is all very well, but what about abortion as a real-life social practice? Since the abortion debate is, theoretically at least, aimed at shaping social policy, isn't it important to look at abortion empirically and historically? Opponents often argue as if the widespread use of abortion were a modern innovation, the consequence of some aspect of contemporary life of which they disapprove (feminism, promiscuity, consumerism, Godlessness, permissiveness, individualism), and as if making it illegal would make it go away. What if none of this is true? In When Abortion Was a Crime, Leslie J. Reagan demonstrates that abortion has been a common procedure -- "part of life" -- in America since the eighteenth century, both during the slightly more than half of our history as a nation when it has been legal and during the slightly less than half when it was not. Important and original, vigorously written even down to the footnotes, When Abortion Was a Crime manages with apparent ease to combine serious scholarship (it won a President's Book Award from the Social Science History Association) and broad appeal to the general reader.

Some of the story of illegal abortion has been told by other historians: Linda Gordon, Rickie Solinger, James C. Mohr. But Reagan, who is an assistant professor of history, medicine, and women's studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the first to span the whole period of criminalization and to cover the subject in such depth. Moving skillfully between a nationwide perspective and a detailed study of Chicago, Reagan draws on a wide variety of primary documents, many never before examined. Using patient records, transcripts of trials and inquests into abortion-related deaths, medical-society proceedings, and reports in the popular press, she reconstructs the complex, shifting network of arrangements and understandings that enabled illegal abortion to persist, and sometimes even to flourish, for more than a hundred years. In doing so she not only brilliantly illuminates a hitherto shadowy aspect of American life but also raises crucial questions about the relationship between official mores and the values by which people -- including the promulgators of those official mores -- make the decisions that shape their lives.

UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before "quickening" (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for "bringing on the menses" with herbs that could be grown in one's garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism ("taking the trade"). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business -- including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press -- was booming. The most famous practitioner, Madame Restell, openly provided abortion services for thirty-five years, with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and traveling salespeople touting her "Female Monthly Pills."

In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians. The American Medical Association's crusade against abortion was partly a professional move, to establish the supremacy of "regular" physicians over midwives and homeopaths. More broadly, anti-abortion sentiment was connected to nativism, anti-Catholicism, and, as it is today, anti-feminism. Immigration, especially by Catholics and nonwhites, was increasing, while birth rates among white native-born Protestants were declining. (Unlike the typical abortion patient of today, that of the nineteenth century was a middle- or upper-class white married woman.) Would the West "be filled by our own children or by those of aliens?" the physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868. "This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation." (It should be mentioned that the nineteenth-century women's movement also opposed abortion, having pinned its hopes on "voluntary motherhood" -- the right of wives to control the frequency and timing of sex with their husbands.)

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